More substantively, Doak preached the gospel of the now ubiquitous ‘minimalism,’ the idea that architects should move a minimal amount earth to construct their courses and that the features of courses should reflect features of the land. Now Doak has said over the years that he isn’t a minimalist strictly speaking and he’s willing to move a large amount of earth if the site has minimal features (like his Rawls Course at Texas Tech). I think it probably makes more sense to call him a ‘naturalist,’ meaning that if the land is interesting, he’s a minimalist and uses the features of the land but if it isn’t, he constructs features but shapes them so that they look natural, with soft slopes and limited shaping outside of the green complexes. This contrasts with the maximalist shaping of courses in the 80s/90s, when architects would build mounds alongside their holes and around their greens.
But by 1999, and certainly in part because of the divisiveness of his writing, Doak hadn’t built any courses that got much more than local attention. That changed when he was given the opportunity to build Pacific Dunes, the follow-up course to Bandon Dunes. This spectacular site gave him the opportunity to put his principles into practice; more natural features than you could know what to do with and all sand, meaning that whatever shaping he did do would drain readily. And of course there were a couple hundred yards of clifftop ocean frontage. Pacific Dunes was Doak’s big break.
And he made the most of it, beginning the development of his reputation as one of the go-to guys if you have a great piece of property. Ever since it opened, the course has been the most highly ranked of the resort’s courses and is a regular in the top 25 on lists of the top 100 golf courses in the world. Now a good part of that is due to its obvious natural advantages—anyone should be able to build some great holes along the ocean and in the mid-sized sand dunes that cover much of the property.
But a big part of what makes this course so good is its unconventional nature. The property isn’t that large, is somewhat awkwardly shaped, and the land is flatter on a pretty good chunk of it (the north side). Doak’s answer to these challenges was to eat up the flatter land with long holes and build several par 3s and shorter par 4s on the more interesting land. This resulted in an unusual mix of holes, with only one par 3 and one par 5 on the front nine but four par 3s and three par 5s on the back.
Two other strengths are the clarity of Doak’s vision and his restraint. Throughout his career, Doak has been criticized for overdoing his greens. But, probably trying not to compete with the site and knowing that it would be windy, Doak toned down his green contours here, building a set of greens which are smaller and narrower than some of his other courses (like Old MacDonald next door), where the emphasis is more on setting up angles and precise iron play. Perhaps more than any other course that I’ve played, it’s important so set up the correct angle into greens here as they heavily favor shots played from the correct places in the fairway over others. Given this focus, to heavily contour these greens would have been to overdo the golf course and make it too difficult. It has a reputation as the most difficult course at the resort—probably because most golfers aren’t too good with their irons—but it’s possible to think your way around this course and through conservative play into the green, leave yourself many realistic chances at par.
Pacific Dunes starts with a pair of short par 4s. The first is definitely not one of the more inviting first holes that I’ve played, but there’s more room to play than appears if you can get it past a row of trees on the left, about 175 yards from the 325 yard standard back tees. With bunkers 230 out on the right, there’s no reason to get aggressive here. Just try to hit something straight, about 200-220 yards.
If you lay up, it’s also best to keep it up the left side and hedge left of the pin on your third—you don’t want any part of the front-right bunkers.
While it makes the pictures for its beauty, this is one where the quality of the design matches the setting. The main challenge is fitting your drive between a cluster of bunkers 250 out on the left and the coastline. If you’re short of these, it’ll be tough to reach the green. There’s about a 50 yard gap between the coast and the bunkers and while that should be plenty of room, let’s just say that it’s a bit more intimidating when the hazard on the other side is a cliff and an ocean than when it’s some long grass or a pond. The green complex is also very well-conceived—large and deep, but angled gently from left-to-right to better contain an approach from the right side of the fairway than the left. There are some nasty bunkers short and left of the green, but these shouldn’t be an issue unless you take a swipe at the green from too far out.
To me, this hole exemplifies the strengths of Pacific Dunes that I mentioned at the outset. The setting is obviously spectacular and the design doesn’t try to compete with it. A few bunkers up the left side and a gentle tilt to the putting surface give the advantage to those who play bravely along the coast. This is certainly in the small handful of best holes at the resort.
But that shouldn’t be the case here. To start, the drive is easier than I expected, requiring a carry of only about 215 yards over the dune and bunker on the right (but it was downwind for us). And the fairway is wide-open here. If you make the carry, it’s a straight-forward pitch up the hill. The trick here is to hedge short because the front of the green is wider than the back and the slope off the right side of the green becomes progressively steeper the deeper into the green you go. Needless to say, if you couldn’t carry the fairway bunker or ended up in the left side of the fairway for any other reason, you should play very conservatively into this green.
And you need a long drive here because the approach is to one of the tightest, most well-defended greens on the course, with bunkers and other junk up the entire left side starting a few dozen yards short of the green and more bunkers and junk short-right. It’s an extremely demanding approach for a longer iron and for most, it probably makes sense to lay 40 or 50 yards back in the fairway. This green site pushes the limits of difficulty for a long par 4 but it’s also the only one like this on the course, which makes it reasonable.
Like seven, the fairway here is wide. But unlike seven, it’s very important that you’re on the correct side of it, which is the left side. You want to get your drive as close to the trees on the left as you can without going in them because the green is skinny, deep, and angles from front-left to back-right. While the green’s skinniness precludes calling any shot into it easy, an approach from near these trees gives you the entire length of the green to play down while one from the right side of the fairway gives you a nasty angle over a bunker into the shallowest aspect of an unreceptive green. Regardless of where you drive it, it’s best to hedge a bit long as the back of the green is wider and more receptive than the front.
This hole is minimalism at its finest—not just minimalism in terms of shaping, but minimalism in terms of getting a maximum amount of interest out of a minimum of design elements. It looks innocuous, but there’s as much interest here as any at the resort.
I thought that this was the weakest hole on the course. Maybe it’s better to the upper green?
But apart from being obviously beautiful, it’s an interesting hole. Unless you build a big, crazy green, there’s only so much that you can do with a short par 3. A common (and tired) template is the small green completely surrounded by bunkers. While this hole has bunkers tight to the sides, there’s a good amount of room between the bunkers in front and the green. There’s quite a bit of width at the front of the green and you can get away with some inaccuracy here.
You can’t, however get away with inaccuracy if playing to the back and if flying it all the way there, you’ll need to be precise. But you can also play to the middle-right of the green and use the slope coming off the right bunker to feed the ball into the back of the green. I’d have to play the hole a few more times to get a sense of how well this works. I hit my shot a bit too far right and it kicked my ball all the way to the left side of the green. I think it should work pretty well if you hit the lower part of the slope.
This hole didn’t play too hard downwind (and for some reason, they had moved the tees up), but I imagine that it’d be plenty challenging enough into the wind in the summer. There’s a lot of flexibility in the hole. While the false front and narrowness of the green make it difficult to hit, there’s plenty of room short that you can use if you’re playing it on an into-the-wind day when you’re just hoping to finish it with the same ball.
I suspect that this hole was designed to play to play into the wind because there’s plenty of room off the tee and plenty on the approach. You just have to stay left of a bunker in the center of the fairway about 80 yards short of the center of the green. But you should do this anyway because the green angles from front-left to back-right and has a pretty good slope on its right side. I think they made the hole a bit too easy in moving the tees up because it was easy to carry the centerline bunker and get near the green off a decent drive.
Because the hole is only about 335 from the tips, I should have gone with my instinct and laid back. Looking at my pictures and the aerial, I think that the play here is to place your tee shot in the far left of the fairway, which gives you a look straight down another skinny but deep green. In addition to the shallow angle, playing down the right side means that you’ll have to come over a steep ridge. But there’s also some slope left of the green that should help contain something a bit long from the right side. I’d have to play this hole a few more times to get a good sense of how well these different shots into the green work
The thing to note about this hole is that there isn’t much trouble for the last 150 yards. But there’s all kinds of trouble up to this point and I’d imagine that there are a few golfers who don’t make it to the 150 yard marker. Laying back off the tee would be prudent because anything right is in the bushes, but then it might be difficult to carry your approach into safety on the second. Sometimes a hole is just hard and you need to execute the shots.
But one of the problems with the big data approach to golf is that it lumps very different types of scenarios together. Not all angles are created equal. If the green is fairly broad and the pin is tucked to one side, the slightly shorter shot from playing up the same side of the fairway as the pin gives a scoring advantage because there’s enough room that the angle doesn’t really make a difference. There’s a big difference between angles on a course with a lot of greens like that and one like Pacific Dunes where the greens are typically deep and narrow, giving you a clear view from one part of the fairway but not from others. I suspect that if we had big data from a sample of courses with greens designed for angles like those here, we’d start to find that angles are pretty important.
That’s the thing that stands out to me about Pacific Dunes: it takes a simple—but powerful and interesting—approach to creating strategy in golf holes and applies it to a great piece of property. Because this approach means a lot of narrow greens with challenging hazards at their sides, which will be difficult in the ever-present wind, the other elements that can make a course very difficult, like fairway bunkering and green contours are toned down. More than any of the other ‘new classics’ that I’ve played, Pacific Dunes excels in simplicity: it has a clear, smart design plan, sticks to it, and avoids the excesses of overdone greens and eye candy bunkers. The site was always going to result in a beautiful golf course and, with the weather, a difficult one. No need to compete with or try to enhance that.
At the same time, this somewhat formulaic approach might keep Pacific Dunes slightly behind some of its other peer courses that I’ve played—namely Sunningdale Old and Royal St. George’s—in my estimation. Those courses (especially the former) have a few completely original holes that don’t seem to follow any design template. Holes like 11 at Sunningdale Old or 4 at Royal St. George’s are very unusual, but help bring a variety-in-oddness to those courses that I really like and that Pacific Dunes doesn’t try to match. For going through a bunch of large sand dunes, Pacific Dunes is surprisingly not-quirky.
I might have worked myself into a bit of a contradiction here, praising the course at the outset for its unconventional mix of holes but then criticizing it (relative to some lofty peers) for lacking variety and quirk. But given the sand dunes and the narrowness of the property, there was probably a real danger of having several bad holes and this unconventional mix of holes probably allowed Doak to avoid this. There’s a fine line between quirkiness and badness and if there’s risk of crossing the line, it may be best to avoid getting too close to it. It’s probably a minor miracle that there’s only one really blind shot on the course (the drive on nine). I might have liked a few more blind shots and some unusual holes, but you have to give Doak a ton of credit for devising a routing that avoided taking on the risk that this would have entailed on such a tight property.
This is certainly one of the finest modern courses and, I think, probably the best at the resort.